Monday, September 17, 2018

The Devil did it (Following folktales around the world 83. - The Vatican)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

I have been wondering what I could read for the Vatican. Eventually, since saints' legends have been featured multiple times before anyway, I decided to choose a classic that I've wanted to read for a long time.

Legenda Aurea
Jacobus de Voragine
Helikon, 1990.

The Golden Legend was one of the most popular bestsellers in Europe in the Middle Ages. More than 1000 of its manuscripts survived from between the 13th and the 15th century. The author, Jacobus de Voragine Dominican monk collected the popular legends of saints and their miracles, organized around the Catholic calendar, in order to provide a resource for sermons and readings at monasteries. The full manuscripts contain somewhere between 180 and 243 saints, depending on the edition; the one I read (in Hungarian) had 110 chapters, sometimes with multiple saints in one. The full edition would have also contained descriptions of the non-saint-related Christian holidays, but I was less interested in those anyway. (I was raised Catholic, I know the drill.)
Most of the stories revolve around martyrdom. It is noted in the Introduction that the Legenda contains 81 distinct torture methods, mixing and matching them in all kinds of creative (and gory) ways. It is not exactly a historical source (the dates of Roman emperors' rules are not even remotely correct), and it is less than kind to women, Jews, and pagans, but it does contain a whole lot of folklore motifs, tropes, and legends, that are a part of the larger European oral tradition. In that sense, it was both an entertaining read, and an intriguing comparison to the folktales I have read so far.


I liked the legend where a saint and the devil had a contest of questions and answers. It appeared twice, once featuring St. Andrew, and once St. Bartholomew, and the answers were sometimes surprisingly beautiful. When the devil asks what the greatest miracle is that God worked on a small thing, Andrew responds: "The variety and beauty of faces. On a small human face God placed all the feelings of an entire body." St. Bartholomew said "the place of the Cross," but he was corrected by the (female) devil: It is the human head, because as such a small thing, in contains worlds. To the question of what it is that is the most human in a person, Bartholomew answered "the ability to laugh." But the snappiest of all answers came from Andrew, who, when asked by a decadent bishop how far Heaven is from Earth, simply said: "Ask your friend, he probably measured it when he fell." Boom.
Pic from this great Twitter account
I enjoyed the legend of St. Juliana, who tackled the Devil, bound it, and beat it into submission with chains so badly, that later a glance was enough from her to send it running. I was also entertained by the story that claimed that Vespasian had wasps (hence the name) up his nose, until a man named Albanus cast them out in the name of Christ. I don't remember this from History class... neither the story where Nero swallowed a frog, thought he was pregnant, then threw it up, and thought he gave birth. Legend claims that's why the Lateran is named after (latuerat rana).
There was a lovely story about the tame lion of St. Jerome, who guarded the monastery's donkey, and was in distress when it went missing. My favorite animal appearance, however, was the "camel yelling in a human voice" that told people where to bury the bodies of St. Cosmas and Damian. Camel ex machina.
Of course, being the legend collection of the Middle Ages, the book contains some well known stories: St. Nicholas' gift (hence Santa), the legend of the Castel Sant'Angelo (where St. Michael appeared to signal the end of the Roman plague), St. George and the dragon, Attila the Hun meeting Pope Leo, St. Peter's "quo vadis" moment, St. Christopher the Giant, St. Martin and the beggar, and even Roland's last battle. At the same time, there are also some surprising omissions. St. Valentine's legend does not say anything about love, St. Patrick's is very short and devoid of all colorful Irish details, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary was missing the famous Miracle of the Roses. Too bad.


I have seen the tale type of the gold returned through cheating (in Burma, among other places). A man swears he returned money to its owner, while all he did was put the money inside a walking stick, and ask the owner to hold it for a second. In this case, St. Nicholas made sure the cheater was punished in the end. I have also encountered the legend in which a man entrusts his fortune to an image of St. Nicholas, and threatens the saint when he gets robbed, so that Nick has to bring the stolen goods back (see also: Macedonia). The legend of St. Felix contained the popular trope of spiders spinning webs to disguise the hiding place of the persecuted saint. I was reminded of an Appalachian folktale (about two foxes) by the story in which two monks in St. Agathon's monastery made an attempt to fight, but did not know how, and ended up being too nice to each other.
Dragon-slaying was a popular element of the collection. Next to St. George, dragons were also dispatched by St. Sylvester, St. Philip, St. Margaret, St. Martha, St. Donatus, and St. Matthew. Margaret allegedly was swallowed whole by the dragon, and burst forth from its stomach (the author says that is dubious), while Martha defeated the legendary Tarrasque of the River Rhône, a monster that "shot its excrement over an acre's span at its enemies."
The legend of St. Patrick included a nice, colorful walk through hell and back that would have made Dante proud.
The book does feature some elements of classical mythology, usually in the role of the enemy (the goddess Diana attacks saints with alarming regularity). In the legend of St. Anthony, however, a very helpful centaur and a satyr made an appearance, guiding the saint on the road to St. Paul. I was reminded of the legend of Oedipus by the story of the birth of Judas, and his marriage to his own mother.
Last, but not least: I always considered Monty Python's Life of Brian a genius piece of British humor - and here I found the original story of the ex-leper! St. Martin's legend contained the story of two beggars, one lame and one blind, fleeing from the saint's funeral procession, in fear of being cured and losing their livelihood. The saint cured them anyway. Bummer.

Where to next?

Monday, September 10, 2018

Great female heroes, unexpected plot twists (Following folktales around the world 82. - Italy)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Italian Folktales
Italo Calvino
Mariner Books, 1992.

This book is definitely a classic. Calvino was aiming to create an iconic Italian collection, in the vein of what the Grimms have done for Germany. The book contains 200 tales, most of them representing the best, prettiest versions of popular tale types, while some are typically Italian stories. Calvino, as per the Grimm tradition, did not only compile the tales, but also re-told them in great style, and with attention to detail. Each one comes with notes that list the original source, the tale type, and comments on what changes Calvino made (which, by the way, storytellers will thank you for). The author also paid attention to select stories from various parts of Italy, as well as Italian-speaking minorities abroad. Due to how the stories were supposed to represent Italian folklore collected over the centuries, some of them retain shocking details (such as rape, wife-beating, and other kinds of violence), but most of them are very beautiful, colorful, and definitely memorable. One of my favorite folktale collections.


There are many classic stories included in this book than I have been telling for a long time. One of them is the Canary Prince, in which a girl uses a magic book to rescue herself (!) from a tower, and also save the life of a prince. I also adore the Daughter of the Sun, a fiery princess who proves that no one else can do what she does better. I also highly recommend reading The Siren Wife (in which a woman is cast into the sea by her husband, and is taken in by Sirens), and Grattula-Beddattula, my all-time favorite Cinderella variant, in which a fierce Sicilian girl robs a prince blind, and then demands his hand in marriage.
Of course, there are several other extraordinary tales in the collection, many of them with memorable visuals. One of them was the Man Wreathed in Seaweed, in which a good-for-nothing sailor rescued a princess from a giant octopus (Calvino's invention, originally a sea dragon). More in the style of classic crime stories we had the Count's Beard, in which a town called home its smartest son to solve the mystery of a witch stealing cows. The story of the Dead man's arm was definitely screenworthy - our hero spent a night in a crypt, and received a corpse's arm as magic weapon, with which he proceeded to hunt and kill evil sorcerers. As a storyteller, I greatly appreciated the Parrot who told exciting tales to a girl left alone at home, to keep her from being seduced by a creepy king (and the parrot turned out to be a prince, obviously).
The collection is quite full of stories about clever and brave women. One of them was a lady married to a Man who came out only at night; he had been changed into a tortoise, and had to walk around the world to break the curse, while his wife was holding down the fort at home by tricking various lecherous men. The girl who was sold with the pears (also a great image) defeated a witch and won a prince. In The dragon and the enchanted filly, a princess was rescued by her best friend, a horse who did not only save her from the dragon and help her start a new life, but also turned out to be an enchanted princess herself (yay for female friendship!). Some tales had darker themes. In The one-handed murderer, a girl was chased half her life by an evil man, until he cornered her; when there was no one to come to her rescue, she ended up shooting the stalker herself. Misfortune, a girl who was hounded by bad luck, used another tactic: She befriended her own grumpy Fortune, and courted her until she changed for the better. On the other hand, I giggled a lot at A convent of nuns and a monastery of monks that were in a perpetual prank war, and the nuns always won.
Some of the tales came with some surprising morals. In one, a prince proved that Money can do anything. In another, a man only ever prayed to St. Joseph, neglecting all other prayers, so when he got to Heaven, St. Peter did not want to let him in. At that point out came St. Joseph, and threatened that if Peter does not let the man in, he would "take the wife and the kid," and move somewhere else. The wife and the kid being Mary and Jesus, of course.
Among the typically Italian tales was Nick Fish, or Cola Pesce, a legendary Sicilian hero and talented diver, who was lost under the sea when he ventured to discover how deep the water went under Sicily. Another unique and awesome story was the Gift of St. Anthony, who stole fire for the people from Hell, using a very rowdy piglet as a diversion. I could have done this latter one under Connections too, since it resembles so many fire-stealing trickster tales...


It would be too long to list all types in the book, since the entire point was to collect Italian examples of the most popular folktales. However, I was happy to see some less common favorites of mine, such as: Girl who rescues her sisters (two versions! Silver Nose and Chicory Gatherers), Basil Maiden (here with Marjoram), a man who spoke the language of animals (and did not beat his wife in the end!), Little Red (who threw a pastry full of nails to the wolf), the Country of Immortality, Shepherd of Rabbits (who won a princess by providing her with so many figs that she could not eat all), Three Dogs (who helped and rescued their owner), Snow White (who was called Giricoccola, and found refuge in the house of the Moon), Polyphemos (and the Florentine), The Two Hunchbacks, the wizard school of Salamanca, Frau Holle (except she was a cat), the Magical Brothers-in-Law (here the kings of Pigs, Birds, and Death), the Gold-spitting prince (here a Crab with golden eggs), the Robber and his sons (here three merchants telling creepy tales in a contest), and Puss in Boots (one was a Bean Fairy, and one was a female fox). I also encountered a fern flower legend.
Some tales were familiar from other Italian collections, such as the Pentamerone - I once again encountered Sun, Moon, and Talia (aka. Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up Pregnant), and the Handmade King (created by a creative princess from dough and brought to life). There was an almost complete folktale re-telling of the Perseus myth, called The sorcerer's head. Some stories were also familiar from Greek tales I read recently: The Wildwood King (where a wild man raises a princess and helps her find a husband), First Sword and Last Broom (in which two kings make a bet on whose child gets the French crown first, the eldest son or the youngest daughter - daughter wins, obviously), and the Dove Girl (which contained Gemstone Mountain, one of my favorite tale types). Liombruno, the hero helped by the Winds to rescue a princess was familiar from Malta, and I already knew the legend of St. Peter's mother from San Marino.
Trickster in residence, of course, is Giufá, fool and mischief-maker, who had a lot in common with both Jack and Nasreddin.

Where to next?
The Vatican!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Research for storytellers is not an option, it's a responsibility

At the 2018 FEST (Federation for European Storytelling) conference in Ljubljana, Heidi Dahlsveen presented the results of a survey that FEST commissioned to lay the groundwork for the EU grant project titled Professional training and development of storytellers on a European scale. Basically, FEST created a survey asking questions about how storytellers work, how they learn, how they are trained, and what skills they think would be most important to incorporate in a "European storytelling curriculum." A little over 300 storytellers filled out the survey. While there were many fascinating, intriguing, and occasionally baffling results in Heidi Dahlsveen's presentation, there was one that particularly caught my attention:

On the list of professional and artistic skills that storytellers think are important to their work, "research" was almost at the bottom.

Now if you follow my blog you probably know that I am passionate about storytelling research (I teach workshops, and even guest edited an issue of the Storytelling Magazine on the topic), so I feel like I want to add a few things to this theoretical discussion.

***Since I am not a member of the FEST Executive Committee anymore, all opinions voiced below are completely my own.***

The moment I saw how badly "Research" scored on the survey, I began wondering what happened. My most likely theory is this: The actual survey text said "academic research", which probably made a lot of people think of universities and numbers and charts and peer reviews. Not everyone enjoys academic research, and certainly not everyone needs to do it in order to be a good storyteller. Being trained in academic research methods, however, can have significant benefits to storytellers, such as:

1. Sourcing our stories
Yeah, yeah, a good story is a good story, even if you don't know where it comes from. That's how oral tradition works. But contemporary storytellers often represent (or claim to represent) other cultures through their stories - and then the sourcing issue gets tricky. Take this well known "Native American folktale," for example:

One does not exactly need to conduct academic research on where the story comes from - because someone has already done the legwork. It should come as no surprise that the story is neither "Native American" (not naming a specific nation is a giveaway), nor a folktale. Neither is, while we are on topic, the very popular Jumping Mouse story. Or the Blue Rose, which is, once again, neither Chinese, nor a folktale (if I had a penny for every time I saw some European dude's short story go around as a "Chinese folktale"...).
Academic research can help us source our stories correctly. Learning the basics of how to locate folktales through the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale type index (ATU), or track down motifs through the Thompson Motif Index can save us a lot of time and trouble, and the more we use them, the more we develop a keen "sense of smell" for noticing unusual stories that claim to be folktales. Which, in turn, helps us with...

2. Ethics
Ethics have been a part of the discussion around many academic research methodologies, and these discussions relate to storytelling directly. Researchers have been asking questions such as "who benefits from this research project?", "who owns the data gathered from indigenous / disadvantaged communities?", "how do we define knowledge?", or "who gets to speak for a community, and how should outsiders interact with gatekeepers?" This all falls under the ethics of research - and of storytelling. Cultural appropriation is a term that makes many storytellers bristle, and it is about as fun to talk about as swallowing a hedgehog - but IT. IS. IMPORTANT. Storytellers need to check their privilege like everybody else, and engage in these discussions with an open mind. Repeatedly. You know who has been doing this for a long time? Anthropologists. Folklorists. Researchers.

3. Recognition of storytelling
Storytelling is important. Storytelling is useful. Storytelling is unique and irreplaceable and should definitely be present in schools and communities. We know it, because we work as storytellers. But how do we prove it to the people that ask for proof? The good news is, the effects of storytelling on the development of children, on the formation of communities, and many other things can be measured and shown. But in order to have the charts and numbers we can hold up in order to push the art form forward... yes, you guessed it, we need some good old fashioned research.
(And unless you want people in other fields, such as linguists, to do it for us... *cough*, then we better get involved)

4. Deeper understanding of our stories
This should go without saying: The more you get involved with researching your stories, the deeper the understanding you can gain from them, until you start seeing narratives in a whole different light. Being educated about how folklorists collect stories, for example, can help you evaluate the folktale texts you come across, and find more authentic sources. Learning about linguistics (like we did in the ETSU Storytelling program) can teach you new things about how oral literature differs from the written - and you can even find different methods of transcribing spoken word narratives so that they retain more of the "oral" elements on paper. Dabbling in some qualitative research methods can help you with your community storytelling projects. And these are just some of the many examples.

All in all, "research" can be defined in various ways, and I am sure the people filling out the survey understood it in their own various ways as well. But if we keep talking about possibilities for teaching, guiding, or inspiring future storytellers - then we can't let it fall to the bottom of the list.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

An island on a sea of stories: Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival

It was almost exactly 10 years ago that I sat in a cafe in Jonesborough with Dovie Thomason, and she told me about Cape Clear for the first time. It sounded like a magical place, the kind storytellers would wish to find their way to, and I have been dreaming about going there ever since.
Well, dreams do come true sometimes.

This year I had the absolute privilege to be a featured teller of the Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival. I flew from Budapest to Dublin (a special thanks to the Hungarian Embassy in Dublin!), then took a road trip down to Cork, with my gracious host and friend Jack Lynch, and Lyn Ford, a lovely storyteller friend I already knew from Ohio. At the end of the road trip we just caught the 5 o'clock ferry from Baltimore to Cape Clear (we might or might not have stopped to hit some book shops on the way). By the time we were aboard, I could already catch my first glimpse of what awaited me for the weekend. Most passengers on the ferry were either storytellers, or audience, or both; the island only has about 100 inhabitants, but that number swells by the hundreds when the festival comes around. I quickly made friends with one of the other featured tellers, Daniel Morden from Wales, who braved the icy rain on top of the ferry with me, and helped me spot dolphins, seals, and birds (while we also discussed folktales and myths of all kinds). On the island we were greeted by our hosts and organizers, and set up in a cozy B&B, with delicious food cooked for us and tea ready. It was easy to tell that we were going to get horribly spoiled by the end of the week, but no one seemed to worry about that.
(Special thanks go out to Daphne Babington, Liz Weir, Maura Monagle, and Karen Edwards for making us all feel like we just arrived home)

The great thing about Cape Clear (apart from the warm hospitality) is that everyone who is there made a great effort to be there. We had audience members from as far as Canada and New Zealand, but even if they just came over from the mainland, or down the road, audience members were set, eager, and ready to come with us into every story we told. You could not wish for better listeners even if you tried. On top of all that, we also had a team of young volunteers that kept everything moving smoothly, and were there whenever we needed something - whether it was a lift to the top of the hill, or a song.

Each evening of the festival had a concert in a school building on a scenic spot of the island, and each day sported many other storytelling events at various locations. We opened the program with Hear All Tellers, where everyone had ten minutes to show off their stories and their style. Next to the four featured storytellers, we also had with us John Spillane, an amazing musician from Cork, who framed all the performances with beautiful songs in Irish and English. I brought Hungarian folktales and legends, and Lyn Ford brought Affrilachian stories; Joe Brennan, from Wexford via Donegal, told some wonderful Irish tales, while Daniel Morden told stories from all around the world with great humor and eloquence. On the first evening concert, he even ventured to tell a Hungarian folktale... I might have encouraged him to do so, because it is such a rare treat to hear a great storyteller from abroad tell a Hungarian tale. Daniel did it justice, and we had fun with him calling on me every time he had to pronounce "vasorrú bába" (iron-nosed witch) in the story. On my part, I told a legend about Attila the Hun; he came up earlier in a conversation, and I asked the audience if they have heard about him. Most people raised their hands; but when I asked how many of them heard good things, they all laughed and no hands went up. Therefore I told the tale of Attila and the comedians, and introduced them to another side of the Huns; the next evening, I went on to telling the legend of Attila's son, Prince Csaba, and the creation of the Milky Way (which we call the Road of the Warriors). For the rest of the weekend, I was mostly telling Hungarian folktales (among them many of my favorites from my new book), as well as the one Nart saga that I included in a moment of inspiration, since I only know it from two places, Ireland and Ossetia. Among the stories, I had the chance to tell my "feminist" re-telling of a Hungarian folktale called The Gossipy Women, a funny story that originally was told to prove that all women gossip - but in my version, it is told to prove that women share information and help each other in many secret ways.

The evening concerts were always a treat. They were framed by John's wonderful music (among them a song that I immediately fell in love with), and always closed with us singing popular Irish songs together with the audience. Con Ó Drisceoil also joined us for one day, and made us laugh with his songs until we were in tears. I'm not going to say that we exceeded seating limits on the Saturday night concert... I'm just going to point out that some people were standing on chairs, leaning in through the windows to hear us. It would take too long to list all the magical tales I heard over the course of the weekend, but there are many that I will remember fondly. I especially loved Lyn Ford's Cherokee story about Rabbit's heart song (funny and wise, as most trickster tales are), Joe Brennan's Irish version of the Hiding-from-the-Princess story (one of my favorite tale types), and Daniel Morden's telling of an Aesop's fable about love after loss.

I also had the chance to go on a walk across the island, led by Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil and Geoff Oliver. The sun came out for those two hours, and we listened to all kinds of tales about island life, folklore, and wildlife as we walked from North Harbor to the south. For the rest of the weekend, Cape Clear was wrapped in romantic Celtic fog, showing all kinds of picturesque faces of itself; one could walk around, admire the wildflowers, eat the blackberries, and watch the tide come in and go out in complete peace. It really is a magical place.

Sunday evening, after the last concert, we all walked down to the harbor, to say goodbye to the people who were leaving on the six o'clock ferry. In the tradition of the festival, we did so by waving long stripes of toilet paper in the air, singing "Go home, ya bums!" at the top of our lungs as the ferry moved away, carrying people who returned out heartfelt goodbyes with heartfelt gestures. In the evening, we had dinner in the pub with the organizers and the volunteers, told stories and jokes, sang songs, and laughed a lot. The next morning, we got on the ferry to return to the mainland, and, in a way, reality.

All those stories about magical islands in the sea seem a lot more realistic now. I know for sure I have been to one of them.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Children of San Marino (Following folktales around the world 81. - San Marino)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

The most famous collection of San Marino folktales was written by Walter Anderson at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately I could not locate the full book, but managed to find a short selection of 10 tales online.

Novelline Popolari Sammarinesi
Walter Anderson
Republica di San Marino 2000.

This short collection, much like the original book, presents the tales both in the San Marino dialect and in standard Italian. The original book contained 118 tales, gathered by Anderson in the 1920s with the help of schoolteachers and their students. Each tale is marked with the name of the original teller - since this was a school project, most "sources" were between 8 and 13 years old, which makes the tales short, to the point, and occasionally surprising. I used a combination of my sporadic Italian, my more confident Spanish, my college Latin, and Google Translate to read the tales online.


The legend of Saint Peter's mother was all kinds of interesting. She was portrayed as a greedy and cold-hearted woman, who only gave one leaf of celery to the poor all her life, and even that only because she accidentally dropped it. Even so, Peter tried to talk God into letting her into Heaven, on account of that one gift - but when she began bragging how she deserved to go to Heaven because her son was a saint, and she was better than everyone else, she got sent back to Hell.
The ending of Madonna's House was much nicer. The tale began exactly like Hansel and Gretel, with children being sent to the woods, and not finding the clues they left to go home. But here the small cottage they found belonged to the Virgin Mary, and they grew up there safe and happy.
I was reminded of Vasilisa's doll a little by the story of the poor girl who bought a doll instead of bread. Her sisters scolded her, but the next morning, while changing the doll, she found gold pieces in its diaper.


The local trickster seemed to be the fox (a female one) - for example, I found a version of the "sick carrying the healthy" story with her and a wolf. There was also a variant of the Three Little Pigs, where after a straw house and an iron house, miraculously a glass house protected all three. The tale of the Seven-headed wizard was also familiar, with a boy exchanging sheep for dogs, and the dogs helping him defeat evil in the end. And I even found a Thumbling story, where the tiny hero named Fagiuolo decided to become a thief, and made good money from it.

Where to next?

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Research behind the scenes: Sibling tales from India

I like to show my work, so here is another behind-the-scene post about a fun project.
I was invited by the Hopp Ferenc Museum of Asian Art to tell stories at their Raksha Bandhan Siblings Day event. It sounded like an exciting theme, and I do love museum gigs, so I decided to bring a whole new bouquet of stories. Building the program was an adventure.

Here is what I had to go on: I needed stories from INDIA, about SIBLINGS. Of course, the usual criteria still applied:
1. I only tell stories that I enjoy and am excited about
2. I needed to prepare stories for various age groups, since at a family event you never know who is going to show up
3. I had to fill 30 minutes with stories, multiplied by possible age groups that meant I needed to prepare 6-8 stories
4. I have a habit of bringing at least one new story to every gig, just to keep my repertoire fresh
5. And, of course, I wanted to focus on stories where siblings love and help each other, or at least are not binary good/evil and murderous

I started building the program by looking at my existing repertoire. I do have some tales from India (I love folktales from South Asia), so I ran through my index cards, and fished out some that fit the sibling theme. I found three, but two went into the "maybe" pile, because one only really featured one of the siblings, and the other I needed permission for. I concluded that I will need a lot more than that, therefore I began my usual drill of finding new folktales for a theme.

Step One: Buy a lottery ticket
Sometimes it is easier to find stories than one would think, especially if someone else has already done the legwork. So I put folktales from India about siblings into Google Books, and waited for a lucky find. While the search did not bring up a full collection, it did show me a book about sibling relations in cultures in India, as well as a folktale collection that had a "brothers and sisters" chapter. Both had Preview options, so I flipped through them, and filed some possible stories away for later research.

Step Two: Open, Sesame
Then came the key phrase search in Google Books. I typed in phrases that might lead to a folktale text I wanted: "loved his sister", "helped her brother", "helps her brother", "rescues her sister", etc. All in all four he/she combinations, past and present tenses, etc. (because "" tells Google to look for the exact phrase only). I opened all likely results in new tabs.

Step Three: Sifting for gold
One by one, I looked at the Google Books results. Did the book have Preview? If not, was it available in a digital format? I use JSTOR, HathiTrust,, Gutenberg, Sacred Texts,and occasionally Kindle for these, and pray to get lucky, since here in Hungary I am cut off from free Inter-Library Loan (which is, frankly, painful). Wherever I could get a glimpse of parts of a story, I tried to guess if it would be worth investigating further; many common tale types are recognizable from a paragraph. I threw out tales where siblings killed or tortured each other - and also the ones where they... um, were a little too close.

Step Four: Back to the source
Because the book search only yielded limited results, it was time to get serious: Go and hit up the Thompson Motif Index. Luckily, it has a searchable version, where I could type in "brother" and "sister", and search for India in the results. Sisters got 301 hits, brothers got 346, but not all from India. I jotted down the numbers that sounded promising (H1151.18: Husband rescues wife's sister from box in an elephant's ear).

Step Five: Sources of sources
The Motif Index itself has the nasty habit of referencing other motif indexes. In the case of India, the source noted is usually the Thompson-Balys Indian Motif Index, which I was lucky enough to acquire while I was studying in the US. So, with the numbers I noted down, I turned to this other book, and looked up the motifs again, searching for the texts they cited. Once again I did the "is there a digital version?" rounds on the Internet. Wherever I got lucky, I finally had the chance to read the story itself, and see if I liked it.

[At this point, I have been researching for 6-7 hours, too bad they don't pay me by the hour for gigs]

Step Six: Story selection
Now that I havecombed through forty or fifty folktales, it was time to pick the ones that I liked best, and wanted to include in the program. There were some that I loved at first sight, some that were new and exciting versions of tale types I love (such as the Gold-spitting Prince), and some I selected because I loved the message of the story (portraying humans and animals as brothers). I even picked one that was probably too violent for kids, but I was intrigued by the dedicated friendship of two half-brothers, one human and one half-rakshasa, who killed monsters together. Slowly, the new story collection began to take shape. I felt like a pearl diver coming up from the deep with magical treasures.

Step Seven: Bringing the tales to life
Of course, this was only the beginning. In order to make a performance good, I had to learn, digest, embody, and color the stories for live telling. I researched all the cultural elements, strange words, flora and fauna in each tale, and read up on the regions they originated from. I was happy to notice that, without paying attention, I managed to pick tales from various different parts of India, showing wonderful cultural diversity. The rest was the fun part: Practice the stories, taste them, love them... and tell them.

Step Eight: The performance
As it usually happens, I prepared way more stories than I needed. In the end, I had time to tell two of them at the event, to a lovely, attentive audience of mostly adults and older children. It was raining that day, which is probably why we didn't get a lot of the smaller kids at the museum, but the storytelling worked out wonderfully. I told about a brother and a sister who set out to find Soma, a washerwoman with magical powers, to help break a curse on the girl, and crossed seven seas together, and then I told about two brothers, a human and a tiger, running a race to see who gets to live in cities. In this latter one, the strength and speed of the tiger was balanced out by the human's cleverness, and a little help for their third brother, who was a spirit. Both tales were fun to tell, and the audiences seemed to enjoy them.

All in a good day's work.

One of the tales had baby eagles

Monday, August 27, 2018

Alpine wonderland (Following folktales around the world 80. - Switzerland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Legends of Switzerland
H. A. Guerber
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909.

I chose this book because I really enjoyed the author's other collection, Legends of the Rhine, and I was curious what stories she collected from Switzerland. Heléne Adeline Guerber was a 19th century British historian, who had a knack for organizing stories; in this book, she arranges them by canton, and by the landscape they are connected to. The volume contains about 100 stories, ranging across the mountains as well as across several historical eras, presenting the most exciting tales, legends,and beliefs. The stories don't have any sources, sadly, but she does quote other books occasionally.


It should go without saying that William Tell, and the legends of Swiss independence, are featured in the book. We also catch a glimpse of Odin (Wotan), who tries to flood the canton of Vaud, but when his powers prove to be useless against Christianity, he retires to a mountain to hold witches' sabbaths. He is also credited as the leader of the Wild Hunt in Switzerland. And talking about typically Swiss things: There was a story about how a shepherd acquired the alpine horn from three mysterious visitors who offered him a choice between superhuman strength, wealth, and music.

The Castle of Vufflens had a very beautiful legend about a lord who wanted a son, and when his wife kept giving birth to daughters, he imprisoned all of them in the towers of the castle. Eventually, with the help of the faithful servant, the wife was reunited with her lost daughters, and the sisters lived happily.
One of my favorite tales from the book was that of the tailor from Conthey, who liked to call his wife a witch because she believed in ghosts and fairies. Then one night a dwarf showed up, and dragged the tailor along on a crazy ride across the mountains, showing him monsters, ghosts, dragons, dragon-maidens, the spirit of Nero, souls of lawyers condemned to be fishing in murky waters, fire-breathing boars, and other fun things, until the tailor got home in the morning and apologized to his wife for doubting her. I was also amused by the story where a naturalist used a box of live snakes to cure a customs officer's curiosity...

Picture from here
Of course there is no European mountain land without Dwarves, Fairies,and Giants - Switzerland has plenty of all three. Fairies usually inhabited caves, forests, or waters. For example, there was the legend of a fairy ship drawn by large swans on Lake Geneva; wherever the fairy woman stepped on shore from it, she brought prosperity, until steamboats chased the fairy skiff away from the lake. I also loved the fairy godmother that saved two doomed lovers by sternly scolding the angry father (and springing water from a rock). The legend of the Lake of Zug was a tad more eerie. A young man fell in love with a water fae, and went to live with her, but eventually he became homesick. As a solution, the fairy brought part of the city, along with all his friends, into the lake, so that they could all love together under the water forever... As for giants, most of them were helpful and benevolent. Among them the most famous was Gargantua, who rearranged the Swiss landscape in various ways.

It was fascinating how the famous image of Phyllis and Aristotle (in which the lady rides the philosopher like a horse) displayed in the priory of Romainmotier, gave birth to a whole other story, since locals did not know the original. In the local legend, the gatekeeper turned away a poor girl who wanted to pray for her sick mother. The girl died,and began to haunt the gatekeeper, forcing him to carry her on his back every night to pray at the chapel.
Other classics also made an appearance: The ghost of Pilate, for example, haunted Mount Pilatus, until a master of the Black Arts from Salamanca exorcised him into a small mountain lake. Mount Pilatus had other legends as well, some claiming that it was inhabited by gnomes, while another one telling about a cooper who accidentally got lost, and spent the winter living with two hibernating dragons. They got along great, except he got so used to dragon food that he could not digest normal food after that.
Another Master of the Black Arts appeared in the amusing legend of the Monster Sheep. A shepherd sprinkled holy water on a sheep to protect it, but it unexpectedly turned the animal into a monster that ravaged the area until a sorcerer managed to raise a white bull to fight it off.


Among the giant legends I found one of my favorites, the one about a giant's daughter taking a farmer home in her apron, just to be told by her father that people are not toys. There were also other familiar tale types such as Mare's Egg, Town of Fools (here, Merlingen), Sunken Cities, maiden rescued from dragon (by her father this time), etc. The story of Sintram and Beltram was reminiscent of a Dietrich-legend; here, two brothers set out to hunt a dragon, but one was immediately swallowed whole, and the other had to defeat the beast alone to rescue his sibling. I once again got to read the Ring of Fastrada - because, according to Swiss legend, the magic ring was presented to Charlemagne in Zürich. There were also knights sleeping under mountains (here, the leaders of Swiss independence), and an appearance from the Wandering Jew, who loved the Swiss landscape. I even found yet another mouse-army story - this time, the evil lords of Güttingen were devoured by the flood of rodents.
I was reminded of the Greek legend of Marathon by the story of the Battle of Murten, after which a Swiss soldier ran home with the good news - and barely said "Victory!" before he dropped dead from exhaustion. Other Greek parallels were brought up by the story of an eighty-year-old lady who managed to talk her rich grandson into granting as much tax-free land to the peasants as she could walk around in one day. The old, lame, and weak lady walked around no less than a thousand acres in one day, out of sheer love and determination.

Where to next?
San Marino!